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Tips for Navigating Toddler Aggression in ECE Classrooms

Sep 12, 2023    |   Challenging Behavior

Educators who work with young children know that toddlerhood is a fun and challenging age of development. Toddlers love to be active and explore but they haven’t yet developed the self-regulation and communication skills they need to navigate frustration. As a result, toddlers often hit, bite, kick, and use other forms of physical aggression to let us know when things aren’t going their way. As educators, we can respond to challenging behaviors by offering children tools they can use to manage their emotions and communicate more productively in the future. 

Aggression in Toddlerhood

Toddlerhood is a unique stage of development in which children are becoming more aware of their likes and dislikes, while still developing skills in language and emotional regulation. This means that toddlers have strong opinions, but often struggle to communicate them in effective ways. 

Rebecca Parlakian, ZERO TO THREE’s Senior Director of Programs, describes toddler communication challenges: “As toddlers are also just beginning to use words to communicate, they rely heavily on their actions to ‘tell’ us what they are thinking and feeling. When a toddler wants a toy, he may take your hand, walk you to the toy shelf, and point to the one he wants…When he is angry, frustrated, tired, or overwhelmed, he may use actions such as hitting, pushing, slapping, grabbing, kicking, or biting to tell you: ‘I’m mad!’…or ‘I want what you have!’” 

While these behaviors can be stressful for adult caregivers, they might be easier to take in stride when they are recognized as a typical part of toddlerhood. More information about toddler behavior can be found in Good2Know Network’s article from the archives, Viewing Challenging Toddler Behavior with a Developmental Perspective.

Tips for Responding to Aggressive Behavior

By responding to aggressive behavior with a combination of empathy and boundary-setting, early childhood educators can underscore the importance of not hurting others while also communicating to children that their feelings are valid. Below, you’ll find a few helpful tips for responding to effectively to aggressive behaviors. 

1. Check-in With Yourself First

When witnessing a physical altercation between children, it is normal for educators to have an emotional reaction. This might include fear, frustration, and even anger. For this reason, it is important to take a quick moment to check-in with yourself before jumping in to help the children. 

Take a few slow, deep inhales and exhales to make sure that you are in a clear headspace before intervening with the children. This will help you access the calm energy and clear language you’ll need in order to de-escalate the big emotions of the situation. 

2. Approach the Situation with Curiosity 

Whether or not you observed the situation that resulted in conflict, try to approach it with an open mind and a sense of curiosity. Ask the children what happened and give them a chance to explain as best as they can. 

Listen to the children as they express their sides of the story and their feelings. Then, repeat your understanding of the story back to the children with non-judgemental language such as, “It sounds like…” and “What I’m hearing is…” This will help the children feel listened to and understood, while also giving you a chance to fully understand how both children view the situation. 

3. Set Clear Boundaries

When children are using aggression, it is important that we set clear boundaries in that moment to ensure that everyone is safe. Let the children know that while their feelings are valid, it is never okay to hurt another person in their classroom. 

Suggest alternatives that the children might use to express themselves or communicate their feelings. For example, consider a situation in which one child hits another because he wanted a turn with a toy that another child was using. A response in this situation might sound like, “I know that it can be frustrating to have to wait; but, it’s not okay to hit. That hurts. Let’s talk to him and see if we can all find a time that we can agree on for you to take a turn.” 

4. Document when Necessary 

There are some children who use aggression more frequently than others. For these children, it can be helpful to start a document in which you quickly jot down notes each time the child becomes physical while in your care. This can be a helpful way to monitor the behavior and to see whether any patterns emerge over time. 

For example, after documenting the behavior for a week, you might notice that the child often acts out right before nap time, which could indicate that they are especially tired and might benefit from getting ready to rest a bit earlier than the other children. Or, you might notice that one child seems to have a particularly difficult time with another child, and that separating those two children as often as possible will prevent these kinds of interactions. 

Making a note when physical conflict occurs can also be helpful in the event that you decide to meet with the child’s parents. The ability to refer to notes in order to describe specific situations will help you give parents a clear understanding of what is happening at school. This ensures that everyone is on the same page so that you can collaborate together to come up with ways to support the child.

Additional Resources

If you’re looking for more information about navigating aggressive behavior in toddlerhood, you might find the following resources helpful: 

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